This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
Every year, Poland celebrates its independence with the Independence March on November 11th. These marches are organised by right-wing political groups and gather tens of thousands of people. Although it's publicised as a family friendly event, white power symbols and xenophobic chants are widespread at this national celebration. During this march as well as last year's anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – an operation by the Polish resistance in World War II – people waved flags with Celtic crosses.
These right-wing groups call their own leanings 'patriotic' or 'nationalistic', but to Rupert – a Polish antifascist activist – it's a continuation of the tendencies he used to fight in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 80s, Polish skinheads emerged in as part of the punk movement, but quickly moved away from the left-leaning punks as well as from the anti-communist Solidarity movement. Their leanings were pretty straightforward: they hated non-whites, liberals, punks and basically anyone who wasn't following the principles of pre-war nationalists or German Nazis. In their hatred, they often ended up turning to violence – attacking people in the streets, at concerts, football games and other events. As a response, antifascists started organising in groups to fight these skinheads, and those clashes were usually bloody. Rupert used to patrol the streets of Warsaw in those days – looking for some skinheads to fight – and he was also behind the first antifascist rally in post-communist Poland, in 1993.
I talked to him about the birth of those antifascist groups, and about how the new right wing extremism in Poland is different from the kind he used to fight.
VICE: So back in the 90s, you regularly fought fascists on the street. Can you tell me how that started?
Rupert: It was quite simple – white power skinheads were terrorising the streets. That started in the 80s, when skinheads in Poland either became fascinated with fascism or stopped hiding their fascist leanings. And they became aggressive. They would show up at places in large groups – for example at punk rock or reggae festivals like Róbreggae – and beat people up. The police never intervened, so there were two options – running or defending yourself.
What was the exact trigger for you?
I was at a gig by the band Fugazi in a venue in Warsaw – it was at a housing estate called "Friendship". There was a skinhead raid that night, and Fugazi band members and a lot of concertgoers were attacked. They roughed me up pretty bad too – I dodged a hit from a baseball bat aimed to my head, but it hit me in the back. That's when we all knew we had enough, and that marked the start of some active antifascist groups all over Poland.
What kind of people were in these antifascist groups?
Mostly people who had been active in anarchist and environmental groups, or in the Polish Socialist Party. Many people came from the punk community. In the spring of 1993 the RAAF (The Radical Anti-Fascist Action) and Youth Against Racism in Europe were founded. There were a few groups in Warsaw who used those names, but all unofficially. We'd split the work of organising rallies, and we'd back each other during street patrols or when someone needed protection. No one cared if you were an anarchist, socialist, anarcho-syndicalist or environmentalist – we were just out there together to face Neo-Nazism.
Why did you have those patrols?
During the first half of the 90s there were a lot of places in Warsaw where you knew you could get attacked by fascist skinheads. They would hang around places like Constitution Square, Royal Route, the neighbourhood around the University of Warsaw and all of downtown Warsaw. And if you'd walk by and they'd see you as the enemy, they'd attack you. There weren't many people of colour in Poland in those days, so the violence was mainly aimed at punks and people connected to the anarchist movement. They were easily recognisable by their outfits. That violence resulted in the street patrols I took part in.
How did it work?
When we had some extra time on our hands, we'd go for a walk around downtown Warsaw in groups of twos or threes – in areas where we knew we could find Neo-Nazis. Don't get me wrong, we weren't trying to be heroes and clean the streets. But if we outnumbered them we'd attack, and if they had the advantage we had to run. So that would often lead to pretty physical confrontations.
That sounds wild. Where was the police in all of this?
You couldn't ever rely on them. We figured out that a lot of these Nazi skinheads had family in the military or police. We got in a lot of trouble with the police – they would stop us for no reason and brought us in for questioning. At the Róbreggae music festival we were fighting neo-Nazis on the one side and the police on the other. It was a bit of a Wild West scenario until about '94 or '95. We were more successful at that point, all these new antifascist groups emerged – to the point that the neo-Nazis were actually afraid to go out.
How did the public and the media perceive you back then?
People didn't get it. They had no idea what fascism was and just thought we were people from different subcultures fighting amongst ourselves. It was difficult getting our message through, and that was what we wanted most – social consciousness. The first success we had on that front was in 1995.
What happened then?
All these things like batteries and assaults between 1989 and 1995 went unreported in the media, and we wanted to change that. So we put together the first ever report on far-right wing activity in Poland. In the early stages, it was literally a few pieces of paper we passed on to journalists. We said that if something didn't add up, we would take back every word. After a while a journalist came to us, wanting to report on it. In the end, it reached MPs, senators and multiple civil rights institutions. That report significantly reduced the fascist threat on the streets in the late 90s.
So that was a success?
Some writer said it pretty accurately once: "There's going to be a problem in Poland once fascists take their bomber jackets off, put on suits and go into politics." And look at what's going on today – mainstream media are promoting politicians who say things that used to be considered completely shameful. The only value system that's being taught in schools is the conservative, nationalist one.
Why is the far-right so popular with young Polish people right now?
I think young people are pissed off – they can't find jobs, there are no opportunities in this country. Some go abroad but the people who stay, stay with their own frustration. That makes it easier to look for enemies, for someone to blame. Poland has antisemitism without Jewish people and an anti-immigration movement without immigrants. It's madness. The current government of the Law and Justice party is partly responsible for that madness, because it supports the nationalistic march on the Polish National Independence Day. I honestly believe that the majority of the people on those annual marches are patriots, but those who have substituted patriotism for nationalism are many.
How do you feel about the fact that there were Celtic cross flags at the celebrations of the anniversary of Warsaw Uprising?
It's outrageous. On the 1st of August [the day of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944], I usually visit the grave of someone who gave their life in the Uprising. I meet the veterans there – when they were a bit younger and healthier, they used to take part in our antifascist rallies. In 2010, some of those veterans showed up with their Home Army [the Polish resistance in WWII] armbands to help us block a nationalist march. Those people are sadly dying out now, and history is being rewritten.
You are a father of two teenage boys. Do you want them to follow into your footsteps?
My wife and I are trying to raise them to be very open-minded. There is no aggression in our home, no homophobia, no racism. I would never tell my child to be an antifascist but I can't imagine them becoming nationalists.
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